If you try to argue with someone today that truth is objective, you will likely be called narrow-minded. If you try to argue with someone today that there are objective standards of right and wrong, you will likely be called a bigot. But if you argue with someone today that there are objective standards of beauty, you may land yourself in an insane asylum.
Lock me up, then, because here I go.
First of all, beauty is not the same thing as taste. In its classical sense, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, but taste is. We like what we are used to, and we have a taste for what we like. Beauty, on the other hand, has standards. If someone is not familiar with standards of beauty or has not developed the taste for what is truly beautiful, then he may not like what is truly beautiful. It is this principle that allowed Leonard Bernstein, during an episode of Young People’s Concerts, after performing a movement of a Mozart symphony, to say, “Whether you liked that or not, that was beautiful.”
Philosophers have identified three characteristics of beauty: unity, harmony and brilliance. Unity, also called simplicity, refers to how well something ties together. Harmony refers to the balance or symmetry among its parts. Brilliance, also called clarity, refers to how much it enlightens us or how much it can explain.
Another fascinating thing about beauty is that it is an indicator of truth. My favorite name for beauty is the splendor of truth. Josef Pieper put it this way: “the glow of the true and good irradiating from every ordered state of nature.” That is a dangerous combination of two things that contemporary society says are relative, and Pieper throws goodness in there too! But this is idea relation between truth and beauty is strongly supported by a group of people deified by that same contemporary society: scientists, particularly physicists. The famous quantum physicist Richard Feynman wrote, “You can recognize truth by its simplicity and its beauty.” Another famous physicist, Paul Dirac, wrote, “It is more important for the scientist to have beautiful equations than agreement with experiment.” That is a bold statement! Physicist Brian Greene wrote, “It is certainly the case that some decisions made by theoretical physicists are founded upon an aesthetic sense.”
I did not know it at the time, but beauty played an important role in my return to the Catholic faith. I don’t remember exactly when it happened, but I realized at one point that everything in the Catholic faith, all the things I thought of before as distractions from Jesus, came from and pointed back to Jesus. As a Protestant, I thought the faith should be nothing but Jesus. So the saints, sacraments, Church teaching and sacramentals all looked like extraneous and unnecessary additions, which seems to me now like condemning the road sign for not being the destination. It hit me that Jesus was the source and purpose of all these things. C. S. Lewis wrote about looking at the beam of light coming in through the window rather than looking along it. The whole of the Catholic faith is comprised of innumerable rays of light pouring forth from the Center of all being and love.
In other words, what I found in Catholicism was beauty. I came to see the simplicity of all things in Christ. I came to see the harmony of all the teachings. I discovered the clarity and brilliance of the Church’s doctrine as it illuminated all things, especially some theological and philosophical conundrums I had previously been unable to solve. Catholic theology is the most beautiful theology I have found, and that is one of the many reasons I believe it to be true.
Truth, goodness, and beauty are all related because they have one common Source. God is not just true and good and beautiful, but He is Truth itself, Goodness itself and Beauty itself. As beautiful as the truths are about God, they are not as beautiful as God Himself.